DISPATCHES FROM THE FRONT LINES: TEACHING IN THE TIMES OF COVID-19

My good friend Brian Baker (@SciFiBaker) tweeted yesterday: “Hands up who’s tried, through classroom technology failures and ‘dual mode delivery’, to teach online students down your phone at the same time as trying to organise discussion with other students in the classroom? Next time I’ll take a unicycle with me as well”. And do handstands… Fortunately for me, my school is too poor to have installed cameras in the classrooms and I have been spared the pleasures of ‘dual mode delivery’. I know, however, of colleagues here and in other universities who are using their personal laptops or cell phones and have equipped themselves with mikes to teach in this way. Without technology to stream my classes, which I do not want anyway, I have chosen to improvise what to do online with the fifty percent of my class that cannot attend face-to-face teaching on alternate Thursdays. So far I have used narrated PowerPoints and asked them to read my own academic articles; I am now about to record a series of podcasts and go on thinking of other resources.

Complaining about the new teaching conditions caused by the Covid-19 crisis may sound unprofessional but I think it would be simply counterproductive to pretend that teaching goes on as usual with no glitches. That is not the case at all. From what I see in my own school one important matter is that, as I have already commented on here, there is a poor understanding of what online teaching means in one particular regard: the obsession with synchronous teaching. One of my colleagues has permission to teach online for justified health reasons and what he did was to record a couple of lectures for the first week of his course which he uploaded onto his Virtual Campus classroom. The school authorities upbraided him because, according to them, he needs to respect the schedule whether he teaches face-to-face or online. Since the school has not booked a classroom for his students, and most of them are in the building attending lectures, this means that they must follow his synchronous online teaching wherever they can. With all classrooms now fully occupied since the arrival of our new 1150 first-year students and no alternative spaces available anywhere (except for just a handful of students) this means that whole classes taught online synchronously are having a very hard time trying to follow lectures. Some, we have been told by the students’ delegates, are doing so in their cars. I may see the need for synchronous online teaching when student participation is essential but when it is not this is an added difficulty that helps no one.

Another matter is how actual classroom teaching is being implemented. I don’t really know where to begin… Right, I’ll begin with the windows. We have been asked to ventilate the classroom ten minutes between sessions, which is not working well at all because students have no place to wait in the meantime. The main hall is spacious but soon crowded, and so are the corridors (I haven’t been to the cafeteria yet…). The result? Students get in the classrooms as soon as the previous group vacates them. I don’t know what the other teachers are doing but I’m not very good myself at waiting. With one thing and the other I’m wasting a lot of precious time. Also, I’m so nervous about the whole situation that I think I have only signed up for attendance twice out of eight teaching days. We have been asked to keep the windows open for the duration of the lectures, which can still be done since this is a mild October month (and this is Spain, not Sweden…) but this has already caused students in early morning classes to complain that they are cold. In one of my classrooms the draught caused by keeping windows and door open is so strong that my notes started flying off the table. I am closing the door now but with some misgivings as the space is rather small.

Students, by the way, do not appreciate at all being taught in large groups of 50 or 100 with just one metre distance between them, they simply do not feel safe. I have already mentioned the crowded corridors, which our students are indignantly reporting on a daily basis on their social media. Add to this that some spaces occupied to accommodate teaching are not really suitable to be used regularly. My bigger classroom is, as happens, the ‘Sala de Grados’, that is to say the formally furnished classroom where doctoral students present their dissertations and teachers are examined for tenure (this brings some memories…). This means that this room has very comfy seats but no tables for students to take notes. I won’t even mention the ugly artwork that distracts me so much, above all the ghostly image of man possibly supposed to be an alien staring at me from the back wall. Ugh!

Then there’s the problem of the facemasks. We, UAB teachers, were allowed for the first three weeks to teach with no masks on but this period of leniency is over and now we all have to wear them. This is a decision which makes perfect sense on health grounds but that is disastrous for teaching. Our colleagues in the Speech Therapy section of the School of Psychology had sent us a cheerful report in early September (https://www.uab.cat/doc/mascaretesdoc) basically arguing that the facemasks are no hindrance for good teaching, as they are no obstacle to project our voices and be adequately heard. They reminded us of the need to keep our vocal chords hydrated and not to strain them by trying to speak in a louder voice. This is the reason, let me tell you, why primary and secondary school teachers who need to speak to their classes for many hours every day have in many cases temporarily lost their voices. So, sorry but the facemasks do have an obvious negative effect: not only are they a nuisance, it does really feel as if you cannot be heard well, regardless what the scientific evidence proves about oxygen intake and sound projection. The physical effects, on the other hand, are not imaginary at all: mouth dryness increases palpably and the discomfort is noticeable (and the smell, right?); the masks were made for protection in medical environments not to cover the mouths of people speaking to large audiences, much less in big spaces for, say, three or four hours.

The facemasks have a far worse poisonous effect on teaching: they prevent teacher-student communication. My cheerful colleagues in Speech Therapy note that facemasks “diminish non-verbal communication and, therefore, bidirectionally, certain feedback from students. This needs to be considered and adapt teacher’s attention to communicative aspects such as the reception of the habitual and necessary feedback”. In my own teaching practice these four weeks, what this means is that I can speak (with some difficulties) with my 13 masters’ degree students in our smallish classroom (about 40m2) but there is no way I can communicate with my 45 students in my bigger classroom (roughly 120m2). I have tried but their words come out absolutely muffled (most of them use cloth facemasks, not surgical ones) and I simply don’t understand them. The students in the MA class are physically closer to me and I can more or less follow them, but I have also noticed that the cloth masks need to be held with the fingers, otherwise they tend to slip off. Needless to say, students wear washable cloth masks because they are cheaper than surgical masks that must be replaced every four hours. All this means that those who claim that facemasks are no obstacle to teaching are thinking of lectures in which only the teacher speaks and the students make notes in silence. With the facemasks on any kind of interaction is next to impossible, except in smaller spaces where seminar-style teaching may happen. In a couple of weeks I need my students in the bigger group to do class presentations and I really don’t see how this is going to work. And, please, do not misunderstand me: I’m not arguing here that we should take our masks off at all, I’m saying that they are a major obstacle in a higher education face-to-face context.

The other toxic effect of facemasks is the anonymity they bring to teaching. With my facemask on, I feel like a robot. I try to give my voice all the expression I usually communicate facially (I teach Literature, remember?) but this is very limited. My students cannot see me smile (a piece in The Conversation actually claimed that we are smiling less because it is no use…) or in any way make the many funny faces I use when reading from the literary texts we analyse, and just as part of my teaching style… I miss that very much! Besides, what I see in front of me is a totally anonymous audience of persons I might never recognize without their masks on. In the case of my MA class I have already taken a look at their photos with no masks on for even though I have already learned their names I don’t know what they look like. In the case of my Victorian Literature class, I’m waiting to receive the first exercises to do the same and start connecting names to… eyes, which is the part of their faces I must focus on. I must say that these students are very kind to me, showing as expressively as they can with their eyes that they are following my teaching, for which I thank them.

I’ll grant, then, that my teaching this semester could be certainly improved but my feeling is that I have lost control over my habitual teaching strategies. I hate lecturing with no dialogue and I feel that this is what I am forced to accept doing. Since we have ‘survived’ four weeks in this way and it seems that we might continue face-to-face the rest of the semester the question that arises is whether this is not, after all, what the Government has called the ‘new normality’. Aren’t we generally doing well and carrying on business as usual? I think that it is business as usual for the traditional lecturer used to transmitting information without expecting students’ feedback. For those of us in the Literature classroom that understand teaching as working with the students on textual analysis in constant interaction this is working very poorly. I have insisted and I insist that I would be far more comfortable and effective working asynchronously (and occasionally synchronously) online and properly interacting with my students via forums, etc.

A colleague told me today that, most likely, the university authorities all over the world that decreed the implementation of hybrid teaching did not expect this situation to last. By now, we should be all working from home again. It is fortunate, of course, that we are healthy enough to move about and be at our universities at all but a) we are certainly assuming a risk by travelling to our centres and staying there in crowded spaces; b) the current practices are going to diminish the quality of our teaching in most if not all cases. I am well aware that I am in the minority and that most teachers prefer face-to-face teaching but I still demand my own right to go online (and I mean in a flexible asynchronous way). I do want to guarantee the quality of my teaching and I cannot do that in my current working conditions. I simply fail to understand what the compulsory face-to-face teaching is proving, considering that we are in the middle of a dangerous pandemic, and why all the issues I have raised have so little weight. In any case, I will certainly try to do my best, be as professional as I usually am.

PS Guess what? Face-to-face teaching has been suspended by the regional health authorities for two weeks…

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

2 thoughts on “DISPATCHES FROM THE FRONT LINES: TEACHING IN THE TIMES OF COVID-19

  1. What we have to be clear about is that teaching has changed, people are changing and luckily we have the technology to apply it. But that will never replace face-to-face classes or teachers, which are the basis of everything.

  2. Certainly! though we need not idealize face-to-face teaching because it is not by no means all the time the lively intellectual conversation it could be.
    Thanks!
    Sara

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